Iceland: Notes from a small island
Iceland's Sugarcubes spawned more than the global superstar Björk. They kick-started an entire industry, says Chris Mugan
15 December 2006
Icelanders have just witnessed the unexpected reunion of one of their country's biggest musical successes, The Sugarcubes. Björk joined her former bandmates in aid of their record label Smekkleysa (meaning, and known in the UK as, Bad Taste), to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the founding of both the label and the group set up to make money for it.
Indeed, board member and Sugarcubes' deranged vocalist Einar Orn is as proud of the label as of his old band's achievements. "When we started to make money, we could put records out for our friends," he says. "There was no vehicle for classical or contemporary music here, so we could help those areas. We show a certain strand of Icelandic music because we don't go for Top 40 hits."
Yet The Sugarcubes enjoyed hits with "Birthday", "Deus" and "Hit" to show what Icelandic artists could achieve without compromise. "We simply showed aspiring musicians that anything is possible, but nothing happens if you don't do it. That is the idea that has been carried on by other artists."
Since The Sugarcubes, there has been a steady stream of groups that have ploughed weird furrows, most spectacularly the blissful Sigur Rós, but also the dance outfit Gus Gus and the post-rockers múm. Iceland has had a particular relationship with avant-garde music that all these bands have tapped into, as evidenced by this month's tour of the UK, a first, by the Kitchen Motors organisation. While Smekkleysa kick-started Iceland's indie record industry, this is a looser entity set up to provide a forum for collaborations across the music scene. Founded in 1999 by Johann Johannsson, the improvisatory guitarist Hilmar Jensson and the electronica artist Kristin Bjork Kristjansdottir, who records under the name Kira Kira, the group began by putting on events in disparate venues around Reykjavik, including at a lighthouse, a medieval castle and a disused cat shelter. Since then, the group has expanded its reach to release records that feature such artists as Barry Adamson and the Finnish duo Panasonic, as well as to organise international tours, much to Orn's delight. "They are another cell of creative people that has been able to work together at home and abroad. It wasn't like that when we started, because there were no bars, beer and our social interaction was limited to a close group of friends."
Johannsson has previously released records on Touch, though his latest album is out on 4AD. It mixes his interest in atmospheric strings with the sounds made by one of the first mass-produced computers to come to Iceland, which gives the album its title, IBM 1401: a User's Manual. Johannsson's father, a computer engineer, first played with its memory and programming to generate electromagnetic waves picked up by a radio receiver. He recorded these to tape and finally revealed them to his son six years ago.
Johannsson is better known here for the more jokey Apparat Organ Quartet, based on the premise that broken down keyboards would sound more interesting than brand new kit.
How has such a tiny island had such a global impact? When The Sugarcubes emerged in the late Eighties, Icelanders clearly felt isolated, even among themselves. Their capital city lacked the lively bar and club scene it boasts today, so it was no wonder every family seemed to have its own writer, film-maker or musician.
"We have the most of everything, given how few we are," is a popular saying that Orri Jonsson, from the influential duo Slowblow, repeats for me, adding the other popular theory that the island's long winters cause people to spend a lot of time indoors. In mid-November, the sun was rising at 10am and setting at 4.30pm. "And the day is pretty dusky. There's a gloom to everything," he adds. You can hear this in the melancholy tones of his band, Johannsson's work and Sigur Rós. So despite its now cosmopolitan nature, much of Iceland's music remains rarefied. Moreover, the size of its creative community means practitioners need to be close-knit and supportive.
"People working in more mainstream pop music know everyone and vice versa. The different communities are so small we have to work together. That's why there's no prejudice between the genres." Orn agrees. "People get the perception that we are inclined to be experimental, but I think we need to share our ideas with a relatively small group of people. We can't bring the same cake to the table every time we meet, so we offer new ideas and we get honest opinions back."
Both Slowblow and Johannsson started out in more mundane indie rock bands before they found their true paths. Slowblow's analogue hum has been a massive influence on younger bands such as múm, though their musical career has been put on hold since Jonsson's bandmate Dagur Kari Petursson directed the indie film hit Noi Albinoi. Now they are working on an English-language movie set in San Francisco, with Tom Waits, for which Jonsson is writing the music. It is a huge step up for the duo, though he insists their original ethos remains.
"It still hasn't evolved into a career-minded business. No one forms a band or starts collaborating in order to establish that. You sense it when you hear it that it's just a creative drive and the fun of playing with your fellow musicians."
It is different, then, to the UK scene, where bands come in waves that might be close knit themselves, though barely communicate with those that came before them. In Iceland, múm, Mugison and Sigur Rós's vocalist, Jonsi Birgisson, have all been involved in Kitchen Motors projects, as Johannsson attests.
"múm were around at the beginning of Kitchen Motors and the rest joined in later years. We are not all of the same age, with Kira younger me and I'm younger than Hilmar. But we've all been most active since the late Nineties onwards."
Johannsson's string sextet has toured with another string-led group headed by Skuli Sverrisson, along with solo artists cellist Hildur Gudnadottir and Kira Kira. Kira Kira has performed in a series of bands over the past decade and this year released her album on Smekkleysa, a selection of spectral sounds suited to the audio-visual experience Kitchen Motors envisage for this project.
"I was really focused on Kitchen Motors and happy to build it up, so slowly my music grew on board that," she explains. "Originally we wanted to make up for things that were missing in Iceland, to irrigate the dry parts, and that's always been our aim, even as we've grown. We want it to be a playground where you are allowed to take risks and make mistakes."
This playful outlook is important to Kira, what she calls the "prankster spirit", as if the Norse mischief-maker Loki still holds sway over these Viking descendants. "The people around me are very curious and have a lot of energy," she continues. "They stay awake at night and tinker with strange instruments."